Lesson 21: What is Portrait Photography?
Portrait photography is often considered an art form that involves capturing facial expressions, personality, or mood of your subject or group using composition, lighting, and backgrounds. Portraiture is seen by some photographers as an artistic representation of a subject’s attitude. Portraiture is by far the most common form of photography and creating compelling portraits requires in part the ability to connect with people.
You can easily distinguish famous portrait photographers work based on their distinct style and the deep connection they have with their subjects. When it comes to techniques used in portrait photography and photographing people, you’ll find they fall into one of two categories: Candid and Portraits. Each category requires a slightly different approach.
Before you take your first shot, take some time and build a rapport with your subject. Get to know a little about them, their likes and dislikes, favorite foods, music, or anything to help you make a connection.
Adorama Photography TV has an excellent video tutorial on How To Photograph Small Groups and Families by renowned professional photographer Tamara Lackey. Tamara shows you how to photograph a mother and her two adorable children using reflector (and without an assistant!!!).
This portrait was made using standard studio lighting except I used “umbrella” lighting (the flash is aimed into a silverized umbrella which is pointed at the subject. The main light came from my right, while the fill was at my left.
If you like the “hair light” effect and don’t have studio lights, then just make sure your subject is seated next to a lamp. Here the light source is from the ceiling lamp. Notice how it highlights my daughter’s hair and puts a nice sheen on my grand-daughter Ivy.
If I had used flash it would have overpowered the 75 watt bulb and you would see nothing in the background but harsh shadows. Thus, even though the color balance is “off” this is a very warm, pleasing portrait of two warm and pleasant family members.
Generally our “eye” feels most comfortable with a portrait if the subject’s eyes are NOT centered in the photo. Try to frame the subject so that their eyes are above center. Also, make sure that you do not crop off the top of the head. Unless you are deliberately cropping just on the eyes (for impact) you should leave a little space on the top.
Here are two acceptable exceptions to the rule:
The long reason for why these two portraits are acceptable would take volumes in explanation. The short reason is … they work. They are pleasing and interesting.
I love candid (un-posed) portraits but have, on occasion had to pose folks and use studio lighting. There are volumes of pages on studio lighting which I don’t have room or time for. Here is the basic, standard lighting used in a studio. (Pardon the crude illustration but it is accurate and does get the job done). Notice that the subject (in the center) is facing the lens but the shoulders are turned. This is to reduce the shoulder width a tad.
The main light is at the bottom left, with the fill light at the right. The fill light should be one to two stops less bright, it’s purpose is just to fill in the shadow created by the main light.
The hair light (upper left) is elevated above the subjects head, shining downward so as not to cast any light on the subjects face, just the hair. Fact is, it takes a good studio photographer years to become accomplished. If you wish to pursue studio lighting I would suggest you head out to a good library or book store.
Personally, I think most studio portraits are rather wooden and “posed” and they only work when they offer a real insight into the person’s true nature.